Marie asked whether we were going to show our son Ponyo. I said nah, let’s throw him in the Miyazaki deep end with Princess Mononoke.
I’m kidding, of course. If you want to start listing reasons why Hayao Miyazaki’s films are so beloved in the United States, then you could get a little cynical and grouchy, or you could note that there are Miyazaki movies for every age. He’s directed films for eleven-at-hearts and for older audiences, but he’s also made a few that are absolutely perfect for six year-olds. So here’s the first of a couple that we’re watching this fall. Ponyo was released in Japan in 2008 and came out in the US with a very wide release in multiplexes all across the country the following year. It did pretty respectable business for a cartoon without any merchandising, and while it wasn’t a blockbuster, it attracted crowds beyond anime fans, and I just can’t believe anybody left without a smile of curiosity and amusement. It’s just so darn cute.
Our kid was absolutely hypnotized by it. The movie hits on similar themes of life out of balance that Miyazaki has explored in other films, but the core for children is a simple adventure film centered on a five year-old boy named Sosuke and his very odd new companion, a little girl who was a small fish when he first met her. They have a safe, not-frightening, but visually dazzling experience of looking for his mother after the little girl, given the name Ponyo, throws the world off-kilter by abandoning an underwater life of magic in favor of humanity.
I won’t say there’s a ton here for adults to really embrace beyond the beautiful animation. While the movie never drags and never annoys – given the unspeakable awfulness of modern American cartoons, that alone is a massive recommendation – the lack of any real struggle or danger keeps me from embracing the characters or situation. This is a movie to be shared with children, who will almost certainly be as charmed and captivated as ours was. Put another way, watched without a kid, then Ponyo is a treat for the eyes from a visionary director, but so lacking in meat and fire that it’s mostly forgettable. With a kid, this is exploring a vibrant and exciting little world. If you don’t have children of your own, sit down with somebody else’s and prepare for two incredibly satisfying hours.